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“Five Things That Should Be Done to Improve the U.S. Education System” With Jeremy Wheaton, CEO of ECMC Group

January 08, 2020

The following article is from the Medium/Authority Magazine

As President and CEO of ECMC Group, Jeremy Wheaton leads a team committed to closing the nation's skills gap, improving student financial literacy, and increasing college access and completion for at-risk students. From his college days working in the university admissions office, to his current role helping to solve America's workforce challenges and drive student-centric advancements in postsecondary lending, Jeremy has spent his career helping students succeed.

Wheaton believes we must expand access to quality, affordable postsecondary training programs that leave students prepared to enter well-paying jobs after graduation while filling the skills gaps around the country. This could be accomplished by creating a holistic education-to-workforce pipeline through partnerships between business and supporting innovation so that students are equipped to succeed throughout their higher education journey and beyond.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to "get to know you" a bit better. Can you share the "backstory" behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I was a finance/political science major in college with a plan to work on Wall Street until the summer before my senior year. After gaining a bit of experience in the field, I realized my interests lie elsewhere. In speaking with my father, he counseled me to follow my passion. Having worked in admissions at Clarkson University while earning my degree, I found I much enjoyed helping students navigate the 'maze' of higher education. That passion may have come from the fact that my parents had both been first-generation college students who themselves had to navigate the maze on their own. And thanks to them, the path to higher education was much easier for my sister and I.

It is undeniable that a cascading effect occurs for children of parents who earn a post-secondary degree. I couldn't be more happy in my role in assisting others — whether first generation or beyond — through the process.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don't have one specific story but rather a career of experience that has enabled me to witness the immense potential that students of all ages can attain if given the proper tools and guidance. Whether it be the three-year old in a preschool classroom or the single mom who wants to learn a sought-after skill so that she can provide for her child, individuals need and deserve assistance along their educational journey.

We focus a lot of our efforts on assisting underserved populations and have found that there is not one silver bullet but rather a diligent, ongoing, holistic effort that will help these individuals achieve their goals and eventually cascade their success to future generations.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

With our effort to be America's workforce partner in the allied health and skilled trades space, we are working to enhance the delivery of postsecondary education and training opportunities while also expanding the availability of it beyond the classroom. Specifically, we are looking to extend the reach of our curriculum through partnerships and technology, while at the same time minimizing, and if possible, eliminating the accompanying student loan debt.

We also are set to launch a virtual reality pilot program that will test student performance while also determining the potential benefit of incorporating VR as we train the future workforce.

Overall our goal remains the same…to put our students on a path to a well-paying career.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

For more than 25 years, I have dedicated my career to helping students succeed and have developed a holistic view of what education should encompass and provide. From my college days working in the admissions office to my current role as President and CEO of ECMC Group, I've focused my efforts on providing students — many of them underserved and nontraditional — with "break the mold" opportunities that enable them to accomplish their academic goals.

Prior to ECMC Group, I was President and CEO of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, where I worked with the U.S. Department of Education to secure Title IV funding for the school's innovative online program. Previously, I was Chief Operations Officer at Meritas, an international organization comprised of 10 college preparatory schools in the U.S., China, Switzerland and Mexico.

I also held executive positions at Colorado Technical University, Pearson Embanet and Career Education Corporation, where I focused on building teams to develop and deliver innovative offerings and exemplary student services and outcomes.

Ok, thank you for that. Let's now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Our education system has done a great job in increasing access to postsecondary education over the last two decades. However, what we're left with is a growing student debt crisis and only six in 10 students completing their degrees within six years. This needs to change.

We also haven't provided an environment that would enable prospective students to make wise decisions before they apply and enroll, including understanding the full cost of college and also how that degree will connect them to a career in the future. The American dream is so closely tied to the traditional four-year degree that we've stigmatized other educational opportunities, like career and technical education, that are often less expensive and lead to an equally well-paying job. This, too, needs to change.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  • There is a broader recognition of the fact that participating in an early childhood development program and kindergarten greatly benefit children and society as a whole.
  • High school completion rates have steadily increased during the past 50 years.
  • Accessibility to funding and traditional postsecondary programs are arguably at all-time highs.
  • Completing additional levels of postsecondary education still provides a good return on investment.
  • We've seen an increase in philanthropic giving to advance the cause of underserved students.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  • Communities need to act upon the research and increase their investments to ensure higher access to, and participation rates in, early childhood education. Recognition alone of the benefits of these programs to children and society is simply not enough.
  • We have de-emphasized technical and trade programs in high school in favor of a traditional four-year degree for all. This has created a stigma around these career opportunities and contributed to the widening skills gap.
  • We need to do a better job at providing resources earlier — preferably in middle school if not before — to help students make informed decisions about their educational path, which includes helping them connect the dots between their interests, goals, aspirations and potential career paths.
  • The cost of postsecondary education has ballooned, while access to federal aid has increased, leading to skyrocketing and highly burdensome student debt.
  • Postsecondary completion rates are poor, especially for underserved students.

When we examine the education system in the U.S., we must consider the entire lifecycle of the student — from early childhood through postsecondary completion, and every stage in-between — if we hope to be substantively improve the system for current and future generations.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM?

We have made improvements in the last decade or so by incorporating STEM earlier in children's education rather than later, however we need to do more.

Can you articulate to our readers why it's so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

I've seen the benefit and impact of engaging girls and women in STEM while working in the international K-12 space and saw firsthand how engaging girls and women in STEM prepares them for a multitude of jobs for the future. As we look ahead, it is paramount that we educate everyone in the field to ensure we are able to compete domestically and on the international stage.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects?

The U.S. has definitely made improvements in the last decade, but I think we need to do more in expanding access for young women and girls in STEM, particularly earlier in their education.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I support focusing on STEAM. I believe the arts are incredibly important to the holistic development of a person and to be successful, students of all ages need to engage both sides of their brain to comprehensively solve problems large and small.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • We need to invest heavily in early childhood education, setting our children up for success throughout K-12.
  • We should engage early and often with teens, whether it's through clubs or community organizations.
  • Starting in middle school, we need to talk to students about the myriad opportunities available in postsecondary education — from hands-on training in career and technical education, apprenticeships, four-year degrees and more — and also how those opportunities translate into a return on their investment both in time and in dollars.
  • With half of our country's 7 million open jobs considered "middle skill," — requiring education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree — our educational system should facilitate opportunities for more Americans to consider careers in what has become the fastest-growing segment of our job market.
  • We need to cultivate an environment of lifelong learning. With enhancements in technology and automation, Americans are changing jobs more than ever throughout their lifetimes. To stay competitive now and into the future, we each must strive to enhance our knowledge and skills.

Can you please give us your favorite "Life Lesson Quote"? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Believe in yourself. Commit to yourself. And success will follow. There will be obstacles and challenges, but if you surround yourself with people who believe in you, their positive support will be there when you need someone to lean on. This has been true for me throughout my educational journey.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would choose Alex Honnold, who was the first to free solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite. I'd like to better understand his ability to plan, focus and control his emotions while under the greatest of pressure, all while living a very non-traditional life.

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